Citing a surge in violence, DHS wants court’s OK to lift restrictions at Eldora school

By: - August 13, 2021 12:27 pm

A recent renovated room in Corbett Miller Hall at the Boys State Training School in Eldora, Iowa. Advocates for the disabled have agreed to let the school re-open the cells, which were once used to house children in isolation. (Photo by Iowa Department of Human Services)

Faced with a major increase in assaults and violent behavior at the state-run Boys State Training School in Eldora, state officials are now asking a federal judge to let the agency keep students overnight in a unit once used to isolate youth as a form of punishment.

During the first quarter of 2021, there were 25 to 50 assaults at the school each month — roughly one or two assaults per day, every day, for three months, according to court records. The average rate of youth-on-youth assaults at the facility during the first quarter was more than five times the rate experienced in 2018 and 2019, and the rate of assaults on staff followed a similar trajectory.

“The current level of violence and disorder at (the school) completely derails service delivery” at the school, an independent monitor wrote in a June report to the court. “The significant risk of harm faced by youth and staff demands swift action. The violence at (the school) has grave consequences for the youth and staff who are victimized and injured.”

The Boys State Training School is subject to court-ordered monitoring as a result of a 2017 lawsuit brought against the Iowa Department of Human Services, which runs the school for troubled youth, as well as its on-campus housing and treatment facilities. The lawsuit alleged inadequate mental health care services for the youth who are housed and educated there.

The case was decided in 2020, when U.S. District Judge Stephanie M. Rose held DHS liable for violating the constitutional rights of children at the school. She wrote that the agency’s use of a restraint device “shocks the conscience” and amounted to “torture.”

Rose ordered the state to implement a detailed remedial plan to improve the school’s practices, staffing, training and internal oversight. She also appointed Dr. Kelly Dedel, a juvenile justice consultant, to oversee the state’s compliance with that remedial plan.

Monitor: Unsafe conditions undercut improvement efforts

In a June report to Judge Rose that was made public in a court filing last month, Dedel warned that efforts to improve mental health programming at the school were “severely undercut by the facility’s unsafe conditions.”

Dedel wrote that that the school “is marked by frequent youth violence and other types of disorder that may not cause injury, but are nonetheless destabilizing, stressful and counterproductive.”

The issues include sexual assault, with at least one such case resulting in criminal charges; verbal threats of physical harm; spraying others with unidentified liquids; throwing objects; kicking and punching others in the body, head and face; and choking incidents.

“Fear among youth, fear among staff and constant program disruptions caused by the behavior itself and the need for staff to respond to incidents all hinder the ability of both youth and staff to engage in services,” Dedel wrote in her report. “The current level of youth violence and disorder inhibits the ability to make meaningful progress toward compliance with the requirements of the remedial plan. Even the highest quality therapeutic and rehabilitative services will have little impact in a chaotic and unsafe environment.”

Dedel urged DHS to take “immediate steps to improve facility safety” and provided a set of recommendations for the agency to consider.

DHS is now asking the court for permission to modify the agreed-to remedial plan, pointing out that it prevents the school from keeping youth overnight in Corbett Miller Hall, where youth once were held in isolation as a form of punishment.

In recent court filings, said it wants to again use Corbett Miller Hall as an overnight residential space “for certain violent and aggressive students.” The agency says “separation, not seclusion, is a key strategy in serving challenging, aggressive students,” and housing violent youth at Corbett Miller Hall, away from the other youth in nearby cottages, will help.

According to DHS, Disability Rights Iowa has opposed that idea, but the two sides are still in discussion. In her report, Dedel said while the past use of isolation at Corbett Miller Hall “did not reflect good practice for managing youth with serious, recurrent behavior problems,” it did allow for higher staffing levels and limited the movement of youth throughout the campus.

On July 21, the Eldora facility’s then-superintendent, Wendy Leiker, proposed purchasing $128,000 in new furnishings for Corbett Miller Hall to lessen the “correctional” appearance of that building and create a more “welcoming atmosphere.” DHS said this week that Leiker had resigned, effective Aug. 7, during a confidential personnel investigation. The agency did not elaborate.

Several students joined together to verbally and physically assault both staff and students and I recall numerous times looking into the eyes of those staff and seeing what I can only describe as profound fear.

– Boys State Training School worker

Her report noted that while some of the assaults are directly related to the diagnoses and behaviors of the youth who are involved, the “level of violence and disorder at the facility and the daily trauma experienced by staff and youth” have hampered efforts to treat those behaviors.

Dedel’s report says the rate of injury per 100 workers at the Eldora facility has increased from 27.1 in 2018 to 42.5 in 2021. The report also quotes from the written comments made by one worker at the Eldora facility.

Employees of the school “feel very unsafe at their job,” the worker reported. “Just today, one staff told me she is leaving STS because she feels incredibly unsafe and was threatened to be killed yesterday by a student. I have been in cottages when several students joined together to verbally and physically assault both staff and students and I recall numerous times looking into the eyes of those staff and seeing what I can only describe as profound fear. Many staff vent their frustrations to me on a daily basis. Many are looking for employment elsewhere, where they’ll not be saddled with intense anxiety going into work, wondering if they’ll be severely hurt that night or if their co-worker will be injured.”

Staff turnover leaves inexperienced workers

Between January 2020 and March 2021, 52 youth workers at the school resigned, six retired and 20 were fired, according to Dedel’s report. On average, those workers had nearly eight years of experience at the time they left, and they represented “an enormous proportion” of the school’s workforce,” Dedel wrote in her report. She added that about half of the school’s current workforce is new to the field of juvenile justice.

Dedel also noted that the problem of increased violence “appears to be caused by good-faith efforts to eliminate harmful practices” used by the staff in the past without first implementing a new strategy for managing youth with recurring aggressive behavior. “This ushered in a vicious cycle, where violence and disorder impede the development and delivery of the very practices that were designed to improve” conditions at the home, she wrote.

Dedel has recommended that DHS take a series of immediate steps to address the problem, including the creation of programs to deal with staff trauma and the workers’ need for emotional support in the immediate aftermath of a violent incident.

The report also calls on DHS to improve collaboration among staff of all disciplines, provide education and team-building activities for the staff, and develop a program for youth with highly aggressive behaviors.

In court filings, DHS has acknowledged a “statistically significant increase in restraints and assaults” that are occurring at the facility Thursday through Sunday of each week. The agency says the between January 2020 and July 2020, there was an average of nine student-on-staff assaults each month. Between August 2020 and February 2021, there was an average of 15 such assaults each month, an increase of 65%.

The agency says it is hiring two activity specialists, with one specifically tasked to safety and security. Also, since June, all youth counselor supervisors and counselors are required to work one evening shift each month on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday.

The lawsuit that led to the remedial plan was filed by the national child welfare advocacy organization Children’s Rights, Disability Rights Iowa, and the law firm of Ropes & Gray.

After ruling against DHS in that case, Judge Rose ruled that the state of Iowa must pay almost $5 million in legal expenses incurred by the plaintiffs in the case. It’s not known how much the state spent defending the actions of DHS.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing.